The discussion regarding the potential of an armed conflict, or even regional war, between NATO and Russia over the Baltics have become a staple of the post-Crimean world. Most of the focus has been placed on the difficulty in reinforcing the Baltic states in the face of a Russian anti-access/area denial ‘bubble’ (A2/AD) created with Kaliningrad as the centre of the bubble, and the potential of strengthening this bubble by rapidly occupying the Swedish island of Gotland. If this was to happen, the only way of reinforcing the Baltic states would be over the Polish-Lithuanian border, a strip of land which rapidly has become known as the Suwałki gap (named after the Polish town at one end of the gap). The Suwałki gap in turn is claimed to be extremely vulnerable, as it is wedged in between the Kaliningrad enclave and the Belarusian border.
I will argue that this is, in certain aspects, an oversimplification, but that contrary to what one might expect, this does not lessen the risk of a confrontation.
The A2/AD Bubble
With regards to the A2/AD bubble set up in Kaliningrad, it is usually seen as blocking maritime and airborne forces. By using a combination of long-range high quality surface-to-air missiles and anti-shipping weapons (land based missiles as well as surface and subsurface units), Russia would be able to deny NATO forces entry into the southern parts of the Baltic Sea, and any units operating there would be under constant threat. These two features are a key part of the definition of A2/AD challenges, see e.g. . As NATO is lacking both numbers and key capabilities (such as mechanized and armoured units) in the Baltic states, any NATO response to an incursion would have to include a rapid transfer of reinforcements from other NATO countries and into the Baltic states. The ability to hinder or disrupt these reinforcements would ensure that Russia can maintain superiority on the battlefield in terms of both numbers and lethality of the weapon systems employed.
This description is usually accompanied by maps featuring rings at 400 km, the stated maximum range for the longest ranged surface-to-air missile in current Russian inventory (the 40N6 missile of the S-400 Triumf system) , as well as at 300 km, the approximate maximum range of the K-300P Bastion-P coastal defence system’s P-800 ‘Yakhont’/’Oniks’ missiles .
However, this fails to account for a number of facts. To begin with, at maximum range missiles lacks the energy to be able to chase down and hit maneuvering targets such as fighters. The very long range nature of the 40N6 also by necessity dictates that the missile is extremely large, further degrading the performance against maneuvering targets. As such the main use of the 40N6 is likely against large high-value targets such as AWACS, tankers, stand-off jammers, and transport aircraft. A more fitting maximum range when discussing fighter-sized targets would be that of the somewhat smaller and shorter-ranged 48N6E missile, which in its latest version feature ranges over 200 km . This is still a highly potent weapon, but the area covered is roughly a quarter of that of the 40N6.
For anti-ship missiles, the need to maneuver isn’t as crucial, but going out to maximum range means that a measure of tactical flexibility is lost. This includes routing the missiles to attack from unexpected vectors, or simultaneous impact by missiles approaching from different directions, see e.g. video clip from Ruptly .
The main problem operating out at very long ranges is target acquisition. The range of radars are usually limited by the horizon, which is the reason that aircraft mounted radars are so popular. This is a problem for Kaliningrad, as the whole area is easily covered by NATO air defence networks (more on which later), and as such Russia has installed over the horizon (OTH) radar arrays in the area. In the case of Kaliningrad, it was recently disclosed that the Sunflower-E (Ru. Подсолнух-Э / Podsolnukh-E) long-range air- and surface radar will be installed in Kaliningrad . Note that the picture in the source is of the anti-missile radar Voronezh-M, also found in Kaliningrad , and not of the Sunflower-E. The exact range of this array is unclear, but the manufacturer claims it can be used to cover the 200-mile (320 km) economic zone of coastal countries , while the earlier quoted Russia Today article cited ranges ‘up to 450 km’. This latter figure is likely against large airborne targets at altitude, which is also in accordance with a widely circulated but unsourced graphic . The radar array is made up of a ‘forest’ of individual antennas, which means that it is likely very resistant to shock waves from bomb blasts. However, the largely immobile nature and size of the installation means that its exact location is well-known, and while the antennas might be hard to destroy and do feature a certain degree of redundancy if damaged, the system likely has other key components (power supply, transmitters, receivers, and operator centrals) which are more vulnerable.
Radars are also inherently active, which means that they can be located once they start transmitting. To avoid this both anti-ship missiles and the S-400 has the ability to be fed targeting data from passive sources such as emitter locators, which work by locating an emitting radar of the adversary. This is particularly effective if the enemy forces have used active jamming to make the use of own radars impossible, as the active jammer is a very strong source of emission, and hence easily targeted. As a general rule, these systems are however less accurate than active systems, and the difference is emphasised when operating at very long ranges. The fact that all missiles discussed here have their own active radars does remedy this to a certain extent.
- The A2/AD bubble in Kaliningrad is made up of some of the world’s most modern anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles
- To achieve accurate targeting data at extreme ranges, it relies on potentially vulnerable sensor systems
- Secondary sensors are available, but offer a somewhat degraded picture
- The bubble does not start at an absolute range (e.g. 400 km), but instead gradually increases in capability and lethality the closer one gets to Kaliningrad
Logistics and Kaliningrad as an enclave
Often overlooked in the discussion is the logistics of the A2/AD bubble and the vulnerability of Kaliningrad itself. The long range missiles of the S-400 and K-300P systems are large and bulky, with e.g. the 48N6E being 7,5 m long. The TEL firing units as well as transport units for reloads are all based on either 6×6 all-terrain trucks pulling semi-trailers or self-propelled 8×8 heavy all-terrain vehicles. The pure size means that the battery won’t have too many missiles with it in the field. Notable for Kaliningrad, if reinforcements are needed fast, only large transports are able to airlift the loaded vehicles, and only a limited number at a time.
Out in the field, the battery moves as a large convoy of bulky vehicles. The firing battery comprises an engagement radar and up to twelve TEL’s, each with four missiles. These are then backed up by the supporting vehicles, including missile transports (roughly similar to the TEL’s in outward appearance) and the reload vehicle with a heavy-duty crane. The firing batteries are then linked to a centralised command vehicle and a long-range acquisition radar. This means that any S-400 battery on the move will include ten to twenty oversized trucks. For the K-300P, the composition is roughly similar.
This mobility is one of the great benefits of the S-400 and K-300P systems. The whole battery can be moved around quickly, and deployed in a spread out fashion to hide from enemy units, see e.g. example of K-300P firing P-800 Yakhont from a concealed position . However, as soon as the radar starts emitting, the rough position of the battery can be found out. This means that for the the systems to heighten its chance of survival, the battery will frequently need to change positions. This in turn means that there needs to be several batteries moving around in a coordinated fashion, so that at any given time there will be a firing ready battery somewhere. For the anti-ship batteries the need to operate with the battery’s radar on is smaller, and by extension they can more easily stay hidden.
Kaliningrad is roughly 200 km long (east-west) and 100 km wide (north-south). This rather small area would have to host a number of S-400 batteries, one or two of which at any given time are shifting from one firing position to another. It is clear that during the movement phase the large trucks would be vulnerable to detection, and by extension suppression and destruction. The same would be true for the large resupply vehicles bringing new missiles from warehouses out to the firing units deployed in the field.
The logistics for the missile batteries is but a small piece of the larger logistical headache concerning the Kaliningrad enclave as a whole. As mentioned, it is wedged in between NATO countries, and while it can disrupt air and seaborne reinforcements into the Baltic countries, it is in fact even more tightly besieged itself.
If we for a moment turn the table, and start drawing range rings based upon NATO weapons systems, it soon becomes clear that current medium/long range systems such as the Patriot PAC-3 or the SAMP/T could seal of the airspace of Kaliningrad. Similarly, the narrow width in the north-south direction means that large areas of Kaliningrad are covered by current Polish and Lithuanian artillery systems deployed inside their own borders. This means that the suppression of enemy air defences mission (SEAD) could in part be undertaken by artillery units equipped with modern munitions instead of risking aircrafts and pilots as would usually be the case. If long-range surface-to-surface systems such as the US ATACMS missile system are used, the whole enclave can be covered by ground based systems.
- The small size of the Kaliningrad is problematic with regards to keeping the location of the SAM batteries concealed when shifting position
- The whole enclave would be under siege from the onset of hostilities, as the whole airspace can be covered by a small number of units operating current surface-to-air missiles
- The size of the enclave means that NATO ground based systems would have a large impact, including performing missions usually reserved for airborne systems (such as SEAD)
The Suwałki gap
As a consequence, the importance of the Suwałki gap to both sides becomes clear. The gap, roughly the area coloured yellow in the map below, constitute the sole land route between the Baltic countries and the core of the NATO countries found in the European mainland. Similarly, the area marks the shortest distance from the Kaliningrad enclave to Belarusian territory, and as such is the most likely place for a Russian attempt to relieve the surrounded enclave.
The gap is often described as ‘vulnerable’ from a NATO point of view, mainly due to it being only 65 km wide at its narrowest point. This means that the entire width of the gap is within range of Russian artillery, and ground units could cover the distance in a matter of days (or less if unopposed).
However, this fails to account for a number of factors. While disrupting the movement of troops on the two main roads (Suwałki-Kaunas and Augustów-Alytus-Vilnius) and single railway that passes though the gap is possible not only with artillery as well as with e.g. special forces on foot, cutting it off completely and opening a corridor to Kaliningrad is another thing completely. The main transport arteries of the gap, as mentioned, traverse the region in the northeast-southwest direction, i.e. between Poland and Lithuania. There are a number of smaller roads going in the opposite direction, but in general it is easier to move troops and materiel between Poland and Lithuania than between Kaliningrad and Belarus. The main road going east from Kaliningrad goes north of the gap, and passes through the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, before continuing on to Minsk. The terrain is also very varied, with especially the area bordering Belarus being heavily forested. As such, the terrain is well-suited for the kind of light infantry that makes up the majority of the Lithuanian army. Below is an example of the terrain found in this area, featuring the road from Belarus to Druskininkai, Lithuania.
Perhaps the most often overlooked factor is the Polish army. At the same time many NATO countries have shifted to lighter and smaller units, Poland has maintained a core of heavy units, lead by the formidable 11th “Lubuska” Armoured Cavalry Division . The unit is a full-fledged armoured division, featuring two armoured brigades equipped with Leopard 2A4 tanks, to be upgraded to the Leopard 2PL standard . Backed up by two mechanised divisions equipped with PT-91 Twardy, a locally modernised MBT based on the T-72, it could provide the core of a complete armoured corps, one of very few left in NATO.
The big difference between the Polish army and others large armoured units in NATO is that it is based close to the Baltic countries, and, crucially, that the political leadership in Poland and the Baltic states largely shares the same view of Russia and the need to counter an increasingly aggressive Kremlin. As has been noted in other scenarios, the key to countering a Russian aggression in the Baltic states would be to get qualified units on the ground as soon as possible, to boost deterrence and provide an answer to the heavily mechanised Russian ground units that otherwise would be hard to counter for the light infantry units that make up the core of the Baltic armies . Importantly, if a crises were to start to unfold, the Polish units might be the only ones where there would be both the political will and a short enough transfer time that they might pass through the Suwałki gap and take up position before the gap would be under serious threat. The distance from Suwałki to e.g. Tartu is just over 600 km by road, a far cry from the logistics involved in getting a US or British armoured division deployed to Estonia.
It is obviously not without problems to deploy these units to the Baltic states. To begin with, the eastern Polish border can hardly be left undefended. Also, there is a gauge break between the Polish and Lithuanian railway systems, meaning that, until Rail Baltica is ready, what would otherwise be the most efficient way of rapidly moving tracked vehicles from Poland to the Baltic states feature a severe bottleneck. Also, the 11th “Lubuska” division is deployed in the southwestern parts of Poland, more or less as far from Lithuania as possible. The 16th “Pomeranian” Mechanised Division is however deployed opposite Kaliningrad, and while its PT-91’s are inferior to the Leopard 2PL, they are superior to anything currently deployed in the Kaliningrad enclave.
- The main logistical arteries of the Suwałki gap, constituting two major roads and a railway, all go in parallel from Poland to Lithuania, with only smaller roads in the gap connecting Kaliningrad and Belarus
- While part of the Suwałki gap is open ‘tank country’, other parts are heavily forested and/or broken up by water. A mechanised force would be vulnerable to ambushes and being funneled into bottlenecks
- The Polish army fields a considerable striking force in the form of heavy armoured and mechanised units, as well as what is likely a lower threshold to deploy these in the Baltic states in the face of a crises compared to NATO countries located further from Russia
All in all, the Kaliningrad enclave does constitute a strategic problem for NATO in times of crises, due to its location at the entrance to the Baltic states and with the long ranged systems based there interfering with any NATO operations in the southern Baltic Sea. However, it is not an absolute hinder to NATO operations in the area, and in a prolonged conflict it would effectively be under siege. Similarly, the Suwałki gap is not necessarily as vulnerable as it is sometimes portrayed. Also, while the draw down amongst the traditional major NATO countries have left gaps in the ability of NATO to rapidly project military power with heavy units, Poland still upholds a sizeable mechanised force within striking distance of the Baltic states, coupled with a more assertive political leadership compared to what is often seen in the traditional NATO countries.
However, while all this might seem to be good news for NATO in the face of increased Russian aggression and the reckless behavior displayed by the Kremlin in relation to several of their neighboring countries, I will argue that the opposite is in fact the case.
The ability of NATO to respond to a Russian aggression aimed at the Baltic states, as well as the possibility to move Polish units into the Baltic states at short notice, create a scenario where, in an unfolding crises, time would not be on Russia’s side. In fact, if Russia would conclude that a confrontation was inevitable, it would make sense to strike sooner rather than later. Through this, the capabilities of NATO and the relatively weak position of Kaliningrad might actually become catalysts for instead of deterring an open conflict.
While a regional conflict over part of the Baltic states would be bad enough, this is far from the worst scenario. St Petersburg is within 150 km from the Estonian border. If the Kremlin actually start believing their own narrative of an aggressive and expansionist NATO, even the possibility of NATO moving a mechanised division into Estonia might be the spark that ignites a larger confrontation. And a conflict in which Russia feels that its very heartland is threatened by NATO tanks is one from which it won’t back down. I am strongly of the opinion that appeasement is not the best way forward when it comes to Russian aggression. But if Putin makes a move towards the Baltic, NATO just might be out of good options.